Thursday, September 20, 2012

Grandma Gamer

Or how the gift-request killed the headshot.

Six hours of gaming every day. Signs of serious addiction - such as inability to think of anything else, a propensity to wake up at 3 a.m. to complete an unfinished game quest. Identifying more with game friends than real-life ones (and never mind family - they don’t even figure). It’s enough to drive everyone else in the household nuts.

Grandma really needs to kick her videogame addiction.

Oh? You thought we were talking about teenage boys? Heavens, no. 

The world is seeing the rise of a new kind of gamer. She’s anywhere between her thirties and seventies, and couldn’t care less about oversized orcs, perilous planets, swashbuckling swordsmen, super-soldiers and all the other stuff that have historically defined videogame-cool. She’s far too busy tending crops, caring for animals and making cities look pretty. Yep. That friend on Facebook that keeps asking you to help her bake cakes or build a day-care center? That’s her.  And she’s ushering in a revolution that is shaking the hitherto testosterone fuelled world of videogames at its very foundations.

The growth of social gaming is old news. Powered by the likes of Farmville, Cityville and The Sims Social, games on Facebook and other social networks are perched cheerfully right atop the gaming heap. These games command the kind of following that all but the most elite of hardcore franshises can only dream about. Consider this - blockbuster hit Grand Theft Auto IV has sold 22 million copies in over three years since its release. Cityville has over 70 million people playing it every single month. Pwnage, gamers would call this.

But we’re not here to toss numbers around to prove who’s winning. No no no. That would be like bringing a flamethrower to a food fight.

We’re talking about something far more profound. We’re talking about the age of happy. The era of glad. ‘Tis a time to be jolly, hold hands, skip around and generally annoy the crap out of others by being overwhelmingly friendly. And the new gamer chic is the looneytunestechnicolorcandypop aesthetic of the social gaming world.

It’s different, this gamer world. A far cry from the trash-talking world of flying fists, exploding heads, aliens with dubious motives and scantily clad warrior-princesses we core gamers know and love. Violence, anger, sex and mad skillz are being replaced by [shudder] love, caring, playing with dress-up dolls and virtual duplo, and [shudder] being nice to other gamers. You’re not s’pposed to be NICE to other gamers. You’re s’pposed to blow them to bits. Whatever happened to tradition? It was instagibbed by the neighbor request, that’s what happened.

The colourful, happy, bouncy and, crucially, friendly and welcoming world of social games has changed the dominant vocabulary of gaming. Gift requests, helping friends and inviting neighbours are pushing headshots, deathmatches and clan raids into cult status from the cushy environs of the mainstream. This new kind of game is like a big, warm hug. It welcomes everybody. Grandma loves this - which is why she’s taking to these games like a duck to water. And other ordinary people just like her are loving it, too. And you know the thing about ordinary people? There are zillions of ‘em - which is music to the ears of biggie game publishers.

The world has always looked at games as things that are played by ‘gamers’ - as though gamers weren’t human beings but some strange other-worldly life forms. Then somebody (it was probably Will Wright, that wonderfully mad coot) realized that ordinary people didn’t play games because nobody made games that they’d want to play. And they realized that games didn’t necessarily need to be epic adventures that required godlike reflexes in order to be fun. They just needed to be fun, period.

A Sims, a Farmville and a Cityville later, here’s where we are. 

What’s happening here is nothing short of a grassroots revolution in the world of videogames. It’s never been more exciting - all sorts of new games are popping up, enticing newer and newer audiences to generally slack, ignore their duties and spend time playing. Good thing, that.

And while, at first glance, it may seem that gaming’s latest revolution is bypassing its hardcore faithful in favour of the new kids (and grandparents) on the block, all is not lost. The creative, positive gameplay vibe from social games is having ripple effects on hardcore games as well. The result? Games like the phenomenal Minecraft - which can be best described as Lego with monsters. Minecraft is essentially about creative sandbox play - build a world with blocks. They just put the monsters in to make it more exciting for core gamers - but Minecraft at its deep core has more in common with games like Farmville than with any hardcore genre from the past. Beneath its hardcore skin of a first-person perspective and retro graphics is a game that is essentially about building things, and enjoying watching your creations grow, little by little. It’s like playing with toys. 

Be sure - there is a convergence afoot here. According to a report by gaming website, 30% of XBOX owners, who nobody would accuse of being anything less than hardcore, also play games on Facebook, up 10% from the previous year. Increasingly, people are playing a wider spread of games. 

This convergence is actually heading to a happy future where the word ‘gamer’ will stop meaning ‘anyone who enjoys playing videogames’. We don’t have specific words for people who enjoy reading books or watching movies as a matter of course. Sure, we call the obsessive types ‘bookworms’ or ‘couch potatoes’ or ‘Roger Ebert’, but those are outliers. ‘Gamer’ should mean ‘someone who obsessively plays every single game ever released, even Big Rigs’ and not ‘someone who enjoys a bit of Halo and Super Mario Bros on weekends’. And Grandma and her friends are helping us get there.

You know what I want to see? A scene where Grandma spends an hour accepting neighbor invites and neighbor requests, tending to farms and cities, before saying “Maybe I should try that new game about that dear little boy running around with a plasma cannon. My grandson says it’s fun.”  She calls out to the kid, asking him to show her the latest sci-fi FPS. And the kid shoots back “Later, Grandma. Need to harvest strawberries.”

That would be pwnage.

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